New Bill Would Strengthen Penalties for Dangerous Driving

VUannouncement.JPGAssembly Member Brian Kavanagh, speaking, with Daniel Squadron and Scott Stringer. To Squadron’s right are Wendy Cheung, Hayley Ng’s aunt, and Jon Adler, representative for the families of Ng and Diego Martinez

Legislation prompted by the deaths of two children in Chinatown would mandate a safety course and community service for drivers who seriously injure or kill a pedestrian or cyclist in New York State.

The bill was announced Thursday by Senator Daniel Squadron and Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh. They were joined at a City Hall presser by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, whose staff helped write the draft, and Transportation Alternatives. The "Hayley Ng and Diego Martinez Law"
would establish the offense of careless driving, and would define
pedestrians, cyclists, road workers and others as "vulnerable users" of
public thoroughfares.

If passed, drivers who hit people with their vehicles would face "suspension or revocation of a driver’s license when the violation resulted in the serious injury or death of a vulnerable user of a public way." As we read the bill, that penalty would be suspended pending the completion of a traffic safety course and up to 60 days of community service. Failure to complete the course and community service would result in action against driving privileges and a fine of up to $10,000.

"We want everybody to stand behind this cause," said Wendy Cheung, aunt of Hayley Ng. "We don’t want this to happen to anyone else. We need justice here." 

Oregon and Illinois have recently established similar "vulnerable user" laws.

While it must be said that — considering the severity of the senseless devastation caused by reckless drivers — the penalties prescribed by this bill would be a far cry from true traffic justice, its adoption would nevertheless be a huge step for New York State, and could lay the foundation for tougher laws in the future. After the jump, a sobering passage from the bill summary encapsulates the current "stark reality," where drivers who kill are almost always protected by lax prosecutors and weak state laws.

At present, district attorneys across New York State are faced with an unacceptable choice: pursue vehicular homicide charges, most often in the form of criminally negligent homicide, or bring no charges at all against the drivers who kill vulnerable roadway users. Even where culpability may be shown, criminal charges are rarely filed. This is evidenced by the fact that only 29 indictments for the crime of Criminally Negligent Homicide were brought in New York State in the last fifteen years, 1994-2008. This legislation addresses this stark reality, providing district attorneys who are unable or unwilling to pursue criminal charges with an additional option, creating a greater measure of justice and social deterrence against careless drivers who seriously injure or kill vulnerable roadway users.

  • While it’s a step in the right direction, this is weak.

    What constitutes a vulnerable user? I’m a healthy, physically able, 30 year old man. Despite that, aren’t I still vulnerable when it’s me vs Two Tons of Metal (on wheels!). If I were to get severly injured or killed by a car as a law-abiding pedestrian, I have a feeling that the driver would walk off under this law because I’m not considered a “vulnerable user.”

  • Michael, a vulnerable user as defined in the law includes all pedestrians, regardless of age or physical ability. A link to more information on the specifics of the bill can be found here: http://www.transalt.org/takeaction/legislation/3235

  • ahh…sounded like a legal loophole to me. good to know that there’s a legit definition.

  • rex

    The real loop hole is what constitutes “serious injury”. Comb through the BikePortland site and you will see that you can get pretty busted up and it is not considered serious.

    Like any law, it depends on the police to enforce, and the DA to prosecute. You cannot legislate attitudes.

  • This is little more than a gesture, but a very good one, and it may even help raise consciousness among potentially dangerous drivers. Now, will it get past David Gantt? And if he balks, will Sheldon Silver put his foot down? Or will this become yet another useful piece of legislation that dies for lack of a vote?

  • Streetsman

    I think this goes without saying, but if there’s a traffic safety course about avoiding crashes with vulnerable street users that actually has any effect, shouldn’t this be mandatory to get a driver’s license in the first place?

  • Full Disclosure: I work for TA and specifically on this legislation. In response to Mark, I have to say that I truly believe the consequences attached with the law are more than just a gesture, despite not being penal in nature. From our work with victim families and our conversations with advocates in Oregon who have passed a similar law, time and time again they say that requiring defendants to personally appear in court is very important to them. The other penalties associated with the law, driver safety education and specific community service related to safer driving techniques, also has an important part to play in, as you say, “raising the consciousness among potentially dangerous drivers.” Every opportunity we have to better formalize and discuss the problem of carelessness and driving is key. Now, per Gantt, you are right–we have our work cut out for us again.

    Best,
    P

  • Thanks, Peter!

  • GRR

    This is great, but symbolic, ultimately. Thinking as a human here, we need to assume that anyone who hits a pedestrian with an auto and hurts or kills someone is going to regret it, and adjust their driving habits accordingly. So in that sense, they won’t be dangerous anymore. That isn’t to say they shouldn’t be punished, just that the overall effect of the legislation won’t change the number of people that get hit every year. It will give victims some sens of justice, though, which is valuable of course.

    Its the drivers who have NOT hit anyone yet we need to worry about. They haven’t yet learned the hard way what can happen as a result of careless or dangerous actions. To that end (and I HATE to get all NRA here) more effective enforcement of the laws we have might be a better deterrent. Reckless Driving, speeding, rolling stops, not checking behind you before backing up (part of the CDL test, btw)… drivers who do these things are who we need to worry about most. Before they hit someone.

  • Thinking as a human here, we need to assume that anyone who hits a pedestrian with an auto and hurts or kills someone is going to regret it, and adjust their driving habits accordingly.

    No, I’m not going to assume any such thing. The world is full of callous fucks who will run over someone, rationalize away any responsibility for their actions, and then keep driving. Without actual proof, I’m just not going to believe that everyone who’s killed someone else behind the wheel is going to drive super-careful for the rest of their lives.

  • Who says that it’s unacceptable that district attorneys have to choose between a charge of criminally negligent homicide and no charge at all? Criminally negligent homicide is exactly what most drivers who kill should be charged with. Anything less than that is unacceptable, except in the rare case where the driver had no chance to avoid the crash.

  • Symbolism is fundamental. During the past 60 years of mainstream motoring in the US we’ve rushed to forgive careless (and unnecessary) driving after fatal crashes. We tell people not to blame themselves and that there’s nothing they could have done, even when that is plainly not the case. In many fatal crashes if the driver has been going more slowly—or just walked to buy that milk—the child that ran out into the street would still be alive.

    And those are just the cases where where the victim is technically ‘at fault’, a vile concept to use against a child run down at play. But people are run over in our city in crosswalks with walk signals, and still the legal system and society falls over itself to forgive the driver that “had the light” and “didn’t see” the victim, to make sure that the rest of that person’s life is as guiltless as possible; never mind the victim that doesn’t have a rest of a life.

    To have motorists face a judge that says, “actually, this was your fault” and go through a limited service of redemption is a dramatic psychological and social change from currently, with great potential to affect not just recidivism but ‘pre-kill’ drivers. Present-day American motorists are deeply conscious that they will get off scot free for carelessly running over a pedestrian. As long as they follow certain informal rules (a subset of actual laws that doesn’t include staying below speed limits or yielding the right-of-way), any unprotected human their car crashes into will be blamed for insufficiently looking out for himself. The reckless driving we see every day is a testament to this informal immunity, a reversion to ‘nature’s law’ for all but the most extreme violations. But if drivers knew that their lives would be indelibly tainted for cutting short another’s, they would not be so quick to barrel through streets crowded with people. This changing of behavior is the goal, but when the guilt lands where it belongs fair consequences will not be far behind.

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